Whether you are backpacking on a shoestring budget or looking for a luxury vacation infused with adventure, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, also known as Saigon), is a place you cannot miss. While there is a huge amount to see and experience across Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh offers a great mix of food, history, adventure, culture, and shopping and is a region of the country you should plan on spending at least a week to maximize the experiences you can have. Blending activities around the city with some key day trips, here are the things you can’t miss in Ho Chi Minh City.
EXPERIENCE THE TRAFFIC JAM ON THE MEKONG
One of my most memorable experiences in Vietnam was a day trip on the Mekong River. This tour starts with a short drive from the city where you can really see the countryside. Once you arrive, you will get the chance to see, touch and taste the Vietnamese culture. From holding a 7-foot-long boa constrictor to sampling a variety of local fruit, to hearing all about the culture of the people who live along the river, the visit will give you insight into the local Vietnamese life.
While taking it in, enjoy the local honey wine, and for those who are brave, the infamous snake wine. Now, this Vietnamese moonshine will surely give you stories to talk about when you get home. Once you prove valiant and no longer run the risk of coughing it back up, you will be praised with pats on the back and cheers.
Once you have a nice snake wine buzz, it’s time to get on the river, where an unexpected traffic jam is hitting. Donning your traditional bamboo hat, climb into a dugout canoe and get ready to start knocking into the neighboring boats as the congesting loading zone is navigated. Once the river widens and you separate from the crowd, sit back and enjoy the peaceful ride, shaded by palm fronds on the riverbanks, and let your mind escape to the wild nature of the Mekong.
WANDER THE BEN THANH MARKET – DAY AND NIGHT
No visit to this city would be complete without at least one visit to the Ben Thanh Market, however, I encourage you to make a few visits over your stay. I am someone who typically hates any kind of shopping, however, the energy and variety found at Ben Thanh is exciting and infectious.
SHOPPING AT BEN THANH MARKET
Wandering hundreds of stalls, having shady Vietnamese men in trench coats coming up offering you weasel coffee (sidebar: weasel coffee is a big tourist thing in HCMC – but before you shell out the $20 for a bag, I encourage you to google what you are buying). This is the place for souvenirs – from intricate hand-cut pop-up cards to teapots to jewelry and shoes, you can find everything here.
EATING AT BEN THANH MARKET
There are also dozens of food stalls and smoothie bars. Stop for a bowl of pho and a mango smoothie when you need a break, and enjoy the kindergarten sized plastic chairs to eat from of while you watch the buzzing activity around you.
VISITING THE MARKET AT NIGHT
While a mid-day trip is a must, I also encourage you to make a stop after hours when the night market is lit up. This is a new universe from the day market, featuring street performers, music, and pop-up bars that bring a completely different perspective to the market.
SEE A DIFFERENT SIDE OF HISTORY
You absolutely cannot visit the famous city of Saigon without taking a few hours to visit the War Remnants Museum to both learn about the pivotal role this city played in the historic Vietnam War, but also see it through the Vietnamese perspective.
This museum does a very good job walking you through the sequential history starting with the French war. You will learn both about the role the Northern and Southern populations of Vietnam played, but also how groups around the world responded to this war which lasted over 20 years.
SIGHTSEEING IN HO CHI MINH CITY
There are plenty of adventures to be had in and around HCMC, but I highly recommend spending a day walking around the many city sights and taking in this fast-paced city. The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and surrounding parks provide a beautiful walk where you can also easily visit the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City and the Independence Palace. There are plenty of restaurants to duck into when you can’t take the heat anymore serving up Thai style ice tea or other treats.
EAT PHO FIT FOR THE PRESIDENT
Now, let’s talk about food. The food in Vietnam is phenomenal and cheap. The streets are lined with stalls, so you really can’t walk more than twenty feet without having access to authentic, fresh and flavorful local cuisine.
However, my most memorable meal was when we ate Pho Fit for a President. Literally named Pho for the President (renamed after a historic visit from President Clinton – but also known as Pho 2000), this place looks like your standard Pho shop – but will be the best damn soup of your life. Make sure to try both the chicken and beef variety, take advantage of the huge plate of accessories they bring to dress up your Pho and wash it down with hot green tea.
If you are feeling fully satiated from Pho and looking for something different, obviously you cannot leave Vietnam without having a Bahn mi sandwich. You can find Bahn mi offered from many food cart vendors or on virtually every restaurant menu.
This is the ultimate Vietnamese and French fusion, with Vietnamese seasoned pork topped with a cucumber, cilantro, red onion, and jalapeno relish sit on top of the classic French baguette. Another surprising favorite treat was the fresh carrot juice which provides a refreshing reprieve from the muggy heat.
EXPLORE THE JUNGLE
Another fascinating day trip to take from HCMC is a visit to the historic Cu Chi Tunnels. This underground, hand-dug, tunnel system served as both home and battlefront to the Vietnamese for over 40 years during the French and American wars. This visit will take you deep into the jungle, so I recommend wearing light clothing and bringing plenty of water and bug spray.
The tour will first show you the different tunnel entrances where the Vietnamese would pop-up for guerilla warfare. The tour guide will walk you through the history of the tunnel systems, show various booby traps as well as food these soldiers and civilians survived on when spending years below ground.
At the end of the tour, it’s your turn to experience the tunnels first hand! There are three layers to the tunnel system, the first is a well-lit, short path where you can crouch to go through the whole thing.
Now, for the very brave, they offer the opportunity to go to the second, lower tunnel. This one requires a bit more grit as you descend the ladder into the dark. At some areas in the tunnel you have to stomach crawl to squeeze your way through the denser tunnel, and caution to you if you are over 6ft as these tunnels are incredibly narrow and at some point you may have to force your way through I am not going to lie, this part can be pretty freaky and not recommended if you are at all claustrophobic.
Halfway through you will curse my name when the section goes dark and you are imagining all the critters that are living down in the tunnels – but push through, these kinds of stories are the reason you travel, right? Once you arrive back to the surface you will be applauded and revered as you are inducted as an honoree by your Vietnamese guide.
CROSS THE STREET
Yes, last and most certainly not least – this single biggest accomplishment you must leave Ho Chi Minh City with is crossing the street. This city, hailed with the highest concentration of scooters per capita on earth (approximately 7.3 million registered motorbikes), has some crowded streets.
Coupled with this high volume of motorbikes, pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent. I discovered this when my taxi dropped me off on the opposite side of a 4 lane street from my hotel. Staring at a never-ending stream of cars and motorcycles, lugging my backpack in the heat in desperate search of a crosswalk, finally a kind Vietnamese man came up, grabbed my hand and we proceeded to walk straight across the traffic, the scooters, unfazed, moved around us.
So, when you are looking to cross a street in HCMC, don’t hesitate and don’t look back, keep your eyes locked on the other side you are going for, and do not slow your pace, the cars, scooters, motorcycles, and bikes will move around you.
So there you have it – add Vietnam to your list to shop, eat, adventure and experience one of the most memorable and vibrant cities in Southeast Asia.
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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